Chapter 5

I'm a Fudging Vampire!

Chapter 5 banner

As math would clearly illustrate—and as the world was steeped in mathematical logic—it made sense that three was better than one.

Go figure.

Sarah, impromptu leader of their impromptu party, had followed the guidance of Apology Twelve. They raided camp after camp of monsters guarding precious, life-saving loot.

There were happy golden stars that fired flaming hot sunbeams, happy flowers with razor-blade-sharp petals, and happy jumping rocks that, apparently—by Tod’s account—were all too skilled at breaking toes.

In truth, all monsters were happy-go-lucky, cute little demons that, when provoked—literally by anything: singing (Tod), standing too close (Tod), and yawning (Tod . . .)—were all too happy to be villainous, evil, nasty things worth smashing.

Well . . . not all of them. Perhaps the hardest monster to crush, kill, and destroy were the Star Trek’esque fluff balls of cuteness. Unlike Tribbles, however, these had the same illustrated faces all daytime monsters had, faces that pouted and cried and screamed bloody murder as they were beaten to a shimmering-white pulp.

The fluff balls were the only monsters that didn’t attack or do anything nasty at all. And . . . to make it worse, their parting gifts—their loot, if you could call it that—were fancy cards with red glitter and ribbons that read I [heart] you and Be my valentine.

This place was weird, morbid, messed up.

Or perhaps they were the ones who were messed up, slaughtering anything they could find to help them survive. In a matter of an hour, they had turned into murderhobos. It was a term Virgil used, one that Tod explained as being indiscriminate, unconscionable killers for loot.

But . . . this was survival.

Sarah could instead be sentimental, guilt-ridden, and eventually tossed back into the Primordial Sea of Souls, or she could fight and live, even if it meant clobbering all the cute things.

She decided on the latter.

Apology Thirteen would be proud.

In any case, every piece of loot went into their party loot pool, distributed to whoever needed it the most. They found armor, weapons, and rings.

It also now made sense what an Interface was. Fairies—in place of the mythical soul devices all non-temporary citizens of Olindale received—provided details on . . . everything.

Apology Twelve could draw the information into the air, similar to how health bars and names appeared: floating text and color.

Sarah’s ring, the one with a yellow gemstone, had real, actual stats like a game item. And those stats accounted for the changes in herself she had felt: her ability to run and dodge and fight in ways she wouldn’t have in real life.

Cheler Ring

  • Rare Ring · Lvl. 4
  • Durability: 79/82

Effects

  • +2 to Dexterity
  • +10 to Stamina

Apparently, everyone and every monster had stats or what the guys were calling a character sheet. Unfortunately, without her fairy, she couldn’t see her stats, only the stats of her items.

Her armor—¤ Basic Green Hood—didn’t provide any special effects other than 30ap, which meant armor points. They were similar to health points—based on the item’s durability—but didn’t heal, needing a repair instead. It currently had 19/30ap and explained all the white damage numbers.

Her trusty weapon—¤ Krik Bone Club—did 2-4 damage and had 14/17 durability. Whenever an item lost all of its durability, it died like any living entity would, turning to a scattering of colored flakes and vanishing.

Virgil and Tom claimed all the other loot drops they had found. Some of it was rated as uncommon. One item was a rare dagger that had a purple sheen to its metal.

Sarah didn’t mind. . . . Not really, really. They were the front-liners of this team, and she, the tactical strategist. It made perfect sense that they would get the nice gear as it would allow them to tackle harder challenges for better rewards.

It was just a gorgeous dagger. Purple and red were her favorite colors, after all. Pfft, she was being silly. Before today, wanting a weapon would have been so incredibly out-of-this-world alien.

No. No no no no. She wasn’t a fighter. Nope. She was a bookworm. Big difference, that. Which was why she currently knelt behind a bush, waiting for her meticulously-pieced-together plan to be carried out swiftly and professionally. . . .

“Shit shit shit!” Tod screamed in his high-pitched, squeaky voice as he ran from a throng of upset giant cherries.

Sarah sighed.

What part of attracting two or three did the guy not understand? Now he was running from a good dozen of the overly-eager-to-explode cherries with angry illustrated faces.

He jumped and grabbed a thick tee branch, swinging his legs up and away from the monsters who were making tiny barking noises. Even with his new set of black leather armor, the idiot probably wouldn’t survive this.

“Help!” Tod yelled, looking about for his allies. The branch swayed under his weight, the wood groaning and cracking, slowly lowering him back to the fervid mob of fruit.

Grr! The best-laid plans always went awry, especially with Tod. The only thing going well, no doubt, was how Virgil now had a clear opening to the large crystal chest they were after, a master chest, as Apology Twelve had explained.

But loot wouldn’t replace a stupid party member who got himself gibbed, blown to pieces, kapooeyed.

Sarah dashed out from behind the bush—reminding herself that she was the tactician, not the fighter—and slammed her bone club against a very surprised cherry.

Its purple-red skin shimmered into silvery-white flakes that salted the others before fading. This, of course, got their apt attention. All those angry faces turned from the low-hanging fruit—Tod—and found a new target to blow their load on.

One excited bundle of fructose was already pulsing a white glow. Its mouth, in the shape of a small circle, produced a rising, whistling sound that was as visible—musical notes dancing into the air—as it was audible.

Now it was Sarah’s turn to panic. She whipped around, took two running steps, then the force of a cherry-scented pink explosion—a whole chain reaction of them—launched her forward.

Her breath caught in her chest. She flailed her arms. Her legs slammed against the dirt, sending a jolt up her spine. Her momentum carried her forward, tumbling down a decline to hit a tree and slide across a pile of dead leaves.

She came to a stop on her back, hands shaking, bone club missing. A -8 in white floated above her, slipping toward the darkening red sky.

She had been a rag-doll down the dirt and rocks and shrubbery—a fumbling, failed acrobat—and yet, felt rather okay.

Thank God for armor.

A bit of padding went a long way. That feeling, however, wouldn’t last. Her armor wouldn’t last.

Pink smoke gathered into multiple streams and shot into the surrounding trees. Little cherries grew exponentially on branches. The cherries were tiny with tinier faces, shouting unintelligible but unmistakably violent threats.

And this was why she only wanted Tod to pull a few at a time! A few could be killed. They were frail monsters, but monsters that once exploded, multiplied!

This all went to say she couldn’t—and most definitely shouldn’t—enjoy a nice respite on her back, watching the murder cherries grow from adolescence to adulthood.

Sarah shoved herself to her feet.

The new cherries, not quite fully grown yet, started to fall and plop to the dirt, reenergized with a deep-seated desire to tick-tick-boom.

She sprinted toward the one and only rendezvous place they had agreed on if the proverbial bag of feces should hit the fan. And, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t last place in the footrace, this race being against Death and the horde of unfriendly fruit it represented.

The trees whizzed by to either side. The angry barking noises grew distant and quiet. She followed a game trail that eventually circled around to a section of large boulders covered in green and light-blue lichen.

Virgil, wearing a nice set of dark-brown leather armor, sat at the topmost boulder, thirty feet up. He was kicking his legs and whistling while his fairy fluttered around him.

He perked up and yelled, “Took ya long nuff! But where’s Toady?”

“He’s not back yet?” she asked, worry creeping into her gut. She had done everything she could to pull the attention from him, in so far as blowing herself up and losing her dependable, much-more-useful-than-Tod bone club.

Then a terrible thought struck. . . .

What if he was caught in the explosion? But surely not more than she was, right? And he had better armor! None of this would have happened if he didn’t anger the whole nest of cherries.

She scanned the trees and let out a relieved breath when Tod appeared, sprinting from the wrong direction. Seriously, how hard could it be to follow simple, elementary, even-a-five-year-old-could-do-it instructions?

“We gotta go!” he yelled.

Sarah half expected an army of Cherry Booms to be chasing him, again. But if that were the case, they’d hear the strange barking noises. Instead, there was a different sound, one that creaked and cracked and . . . splashed?

“Where were you?” she asked.

He waved a hand, dismissing the question. “Hurry! Just go and I’ll—”

The trees where Tod had run from lit up in orange, submerged in a vertical wall of tinted water, carrying a maelstrom of churning detritus.

It was the same thing they had seen from the cliff. What had appeared to be a curving orange line was instead this wall, forming a gargantuan circle. And now that they were much, much too close to it, yes, as a matter of fact, it was moving.

“End zone, end zone!” Virgil’s fairy yelled. “Lose health out there. Lose health, dieee! Kill everything. Follow follow. Go to new zone, safe zone!”

Virgil jumped off the top boulder and landed in a squat before standing and grinning. He wore a new ring with a black opal and slivers of other colors.

“What’cha all waitin’ for, eh?” he asked. “Let’s get gone!”

The wall of water slurped and chugged as it slid across the land, draining the vitality of everything—the leaves, the flowers, the birds and butterflies, the vibrancy of a living forest—their remains, a distorted shadow in the moving muck.

Apology Twelve released a burst of shimmering dust to hang in the air. It painted a path to follow. They all ran from trail to trail, down dirt banks, over boulders, under arched trees, and through a camp or two of monsters guarding treasure chests.

The monsters made little monster noises and tried to follow, but they were all too small and unable to maintain the pace. Some fell back into the end zone and dissolved like an Alka-Seltzer, fizzing at the bottom of a glass of water.

Oh shit!” Tod squeaked and sprinted a little faster, a little more frantically, kicking up dirt as he zoomed past Virgil.

Sarah sucked in breath after breath, somehow finding running to be empowering. The movement, the rhythm, the control took her mind off the wall of doom at their heels.

Finally, they burst from the edge of the forest and came upon a rope bridge that crossed a wide ravine, outlined by craggy rocks.

There were people already crossing the bridge, stepping slowly on wooden slats. And even more people were on the other side in small groups, talking and trading items, their fairies projecting information into the air.

No one was outright killing each other. Tod didn’t seem to notice or care about the abundance of potential enemies looming on the far end.

“Across bridge!” Apology Twelve shouted. “Final zone. Hurry hurry!”

The orange wall oozed over the last line of trees, their leaves shriveling, their bark cracking. A woman screamed from within the end zone, then her voice cut off.

Tod didn’t slow one iota. He led the way onto the bridge, stepping carefully but quickly on the wooden slats that were evenly spaced a foot apart.

Sarah followed with Virgil close behind. She stepped out onto the first slat. The wood creaked and groaned beneath her weight.

Darn those delicious doughnuts!

If she died here because of her complete lack of self-discipline in the face of sugar glaze and fruit fillings, she’d never forgive herself.

And below . . . way-too-stupid-far below, sandwiched between the jagged rocks of two cliffsides, was a wash of darkness. She sucked in a sharp breath and held tight to the rope railings.

The bridge—entirely unlike that of the glass bridge, which had been a solid, lovely piece of architecture, mind you—jerked and swayed with the combined movement of everyone’s desperate need to be on the other side.

“Don’tcha look. Jus’ go!” Virgil yelled.

And so she did. It wasn’t that she was afraid of heights, nor was she fond of them. It was more a deep, admirable respect for gravity and its uncaring, deathly effect on things that fell.

She focused entirely on the next step, the next slat: the shape of it, the distance to it, the texture and color of it. Six, seven, eight, she counted them, keeping her mind occupied from the gaping darkness below that promised to swallow her whole at the first mistake, the first misstep.

At thirty-three steps across the bridge—three-fourths of the way—the wall of orange gushed over the ledge behind them like Niagara Falls, spitting its deteriorating debris of logs and skeletal bushes to tumble down into the open air and disappear, only their crashing, cracking, breaking sounds to convey that there was, undeniably, a bottom, an end where things stopped abruptly.

That was the worst of it. The stopping part. The part when life would cease and death would start.

The good: This was where the wall of doom stopped. The bad: It . . . enveloped the ropes on one side of the bridge, ropes that wizened and frayed and snapped one strand, then two, then a dozen at once.

Sarah shoved that oh-so-terrible image of ropes disintegrating into a dark pocket of her brain labeled Things to Forget.

Tod made it to the other side and yelled for them to hurry. And hurry she did. One step, two—

The rope railing on the right fell, turning all the wooden slats vertical. Her throat contracted. Her jaw clenched. Gravity yanked her down. She swung from one hand.

She hung there, kicking her legs above a thousand feet of emptiness. Then the other rope snapped, and the world rushed in a sudden, uncontrollable thrust of movement that ended with her slamming into the far wall.

“Shit!” she yelled, the word slipping out before she could think of a better substitute, something more elegant, more smart. Her fingers were wrapped tightly around the rough rope, the slats clattering against the cliffside.

A -2 in white floated toward a sky that had changed. Gone were the radiant reds burning through clouds like wildfire. The sky now hung in foreboding darkness, the stars a glimmer of red, the moon full and bright.

Nighttime. . . .

Oh no no no no no! This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. There was no worse position to be in to fight off the nighttime monsters and survive. She didn’t even have a weapon anymore.

Virgil cried out from below.

Sarah gasped. Somehow, he had lost his grip and now hung upside-down, his foot twisted in the mesh of ropes that had made up the bridge’s walls.

“Help him!” Apology Twelve yelled, fluttering nearby and pointing down. Her wings gave off a purple glow, her face awash in silver moonlight.

“I-I’m coming!” Sarah yelled, focusing on doing something instead of filling her mind with worry and a paralyzing fear of What If.

One thing at a time.

“Stop moving!” she said. He was making the bridge wobble and clatter against the cliffside.

She grabbed the ropes below her, finding new footholds, and eased herself down. Her arms were shaking; her fingers ached from holding everything as tightly as humanly possible.

Apology Twelve flew down and grabbed his shoulder, fluttering her wings wildly—releasing bright purple fairy dust to contrast the darkness—in an attempt to save him.

Sarah grabbed his ankle against the rope and reached out with her other hand. “Give me your hand!”

Virgil—wide-eyed and panting, hanging above the abyss—grunted and bent forward. He stretched his hand toward hers. Their fingers . . . touched.

It wasn’t enough.

An arcane piece of her, something buried deep within, something that was strong, bright, and fearless with its single-minded need, propelled her downward.

She released her grip on the bridge, snatched his wrist, then seized the mesh of ropes to stop her descent. She strained against his weight, finding that either her stupid, no-good muscles had never been used or—for a wiry guy—he was fudging heavy!

With the help of Apology Twelve, he finally stood upright. Sweat covered his face, glinting with moonlight that seemed brighter than normal.

He nodded his wordless, breathless appreciation, and they stood there—wrapped in ropes, swaying in the wind—for a long count of ten, heartbeats pounding out the passing time.

It felt amazing to have helped someone in such dire need. It was a euphoric firework of an emotion that made her grin despite everything that had happened and was happening.

Tutoring or taking the blame for a late project would simply never live up to saving the day. She now understood the heroics of all those characters she had read about in countless novels.

“Scary monsters be here soon!” Apology Twelve said, tugging on the ropes. “Free yourself or die. Die, I lose!” She seemed more concerned about losing than their safety.

Virgil unsheathed his purple dagger and started sawing the tangled mess around his ankle. “Get goin’,” he said, motioning above. “I’ll be right behind’ja.”

Sarah nodded. They were about a dozen feet below the ledge. The bridge’s ropes scraped left and right against the edge of the ravine. A wooden slat slipped free and twirled down into the black nothingness.

Where’s Tod?

He had been there only a moment ago. He probably went to get help or lure monsters away. Smart. If there was anyone who could lure all the baddies away—intentional or not—it was him.

She climbed with an eagerness to reach the top, to stand on firm ground again, to feel a modicum of safety by not hanging above the hungry darkness.

A few feet from the top, however, she froze. Sounds rolled over the ledge: hissing and growling sounds, fighting and screaming sounds. They were the type of sounds that stirred up the sludge of apprehension from one’s gut.

That euphoric burst of emotion she had so heroically earned shriveled and died. Poof! Okay, so one act of bravery didn’t replace a lifetime of avoiding danger and confrontation and fear.

Besides, extending a hand was entirely different than fighting a monster, a monster that wouldn’t be small, happy, and cute. No, not the nighttime monsters, and she didn’t even have her trusty bone club anymore.

Maybe—and this was a crazy, out-of-her-mind, contrary thought to entertain, but maybe—this here cliff wasn’t such a terrible place after all? She had, originally, wanted somewhere to hide, and what better place than this?

As if in answer to that question, a scraping, scratching noise came from . . . within the rock? Chips of sediment crumbled, breaking away and skittering down the cliffside, small pieces at first, then large chunks.

They crashed against the ruined bridge, breaking slats and making it swing outward. Virgil yelled from below. Then something—a thing covered in a black nubby carapace—burst out.

In a terrifying flash of a visual, the monster expanded its eight legs like a giant spider twice her size. It also had pincers and a scattering of glowing yellow eyes, some big, some small, all of them unblinking and staring at her.

The force of its grand exit from the cliffside threw her backward. She lost hold of the ropes! Her muscles seized and shook. Her breath caught in her lungs, and a tingling sensation shot through her.

The world spun and blurred and rushed past. She couldn’t even scream! She threw out her arms in a panicked effort to grab hold of something, anything, anything at all.

Her fingers touched and failed to grasp a rope, a wooden slat, a rock. Then there was Virgil. His outstretched hand caught hers, and they swung with the force of her weight.

She immediately twisted to find new handholds, to grab the bridge, but there was nothing to grab. The remaining bridge was gone. She hung entirely from Virgil’s hand.

Then she saw it, another of those Frankenstein spiders below, its legs like black blades, slicing into the stone, its yellow eyes glaring at easy prey.

The monster from above shrieked and rushed down the cliffside, gouging the rock as it moved. It slammed one of its strong legs down at Virgil but missed and sliced a rope nearly two. The remaining strands started to stretch and snap.

The other monster crashed into its friend. They both raised their pincers in a contest to see which one of them would get the juicy, doughnut-fattened contestant, a true prize to behold.

Virgil grunted. He had a desperate, conflicting expression on his face. His purple dagger was clenched between his teeth. He had one hand on the soon-to-be-detached rope and the other holding her.

“Drop her!” Apology Twelve yelled above the commotion of the two fighting monsters. “She be bait. Monsters chase!”

“What!” Sarah yelled, horrified. He wouldn’t do that, not Virgil, not after she had just risked her life to save him. They were allies, team members, members that looked after each other.

But that wasn’t what his expression said.

She kicked her legs to turn her body, frantically searching for anything else to grab hold of and finding nothing but slick stone. Her grip on his hand started to slip.

“Pull me up,” she pleaded, tears blurring the world, panic twisting its frozen fingers around her thrashing heart. “Hurry!”

One of the spiders stepped on Virgil’s shoulder, slicing through his armor. He jerked and cursed. His dagger fell out of his mouth and nearly took her in the eye, tearing a line she hardly felt down her cheek instead.

“Let go,” he said in a whisper as if saying the words at all were a struggle. Then he yelled them with fear-filled conviction, “LET GO!”

“Bad woman!” the fairy yelled. “You let go, let go! No make my Chosen fail!”

Sarah shook her head vehemently—they were asking her to die! She held as tightly to the ends of his sweat-slick fingers as she could, feeling gravity’s constant pull.

He turned and slammed his knee into her nose.

Her head snapped back. A -2 in white escaped toward the red stars. “S-s-stop!” she shrieked, ugly, snot-bubbling sobs escaping in gasps.

She had never, never once in her entire life been so afraid, not the time with the mushrooms or the time with the robber. She hung above a sea of nothingness, threatening to wipe out her existence.

“Hey!” Virgil yelled at the monsters. “Catch!” And with that, he thrust his arm away from the cliffside, throwing her out into the darkness.